White gets serious in title pursuit

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ALL THAT it needs is for Jimmy White to keep on playing like this, all the way to the final of the Embassy World Championship next weekend. Whatever the background to his first-round victory over Peter Francisco, White's attitude in the opening session of his second-round match at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield yesterday was that of a man preparing to fulfil his destiny, and to drag the entire sport along with him, back to the top of the ratings.

We have said that before, of course. Five times in the past five years, the Londoner has reached the final on a wave of popular support, only to find a new way of losing. Last year, thirteen and a half million tuned in to see him lose to Stephen Hendry at the last gasp, missing a straightforward black to give the young Scot a win by 18 frames to 17.

Now 32, White is thickening in the waistline. But his presence at the table is as dynamic as ever, and his desire is not in doubt. "I'm not drinking," he told an interviewer in the run-up to this this tournament. "Not as such." An operation for testicular cancer could hardly have done other than give him a new sense of seriousness.

What he is not doing is slowing down. Yesterday afternoon's eight frames had lasted an aggregate of 1 hour and 44 minutes when White returned to the dressing room with a lead of 7-1 over David Roe. The longest frame had occupied less than 20 minutes, while the shortest clocked up 9min 34sec - or just about the time it took Alan McManus and Nigel Bond, at the adjacent table, to chalk their cues.

White, the number 4 seed, was striking the ball with great sureness. But in his mind the brevity of the frames was not a recommendation. "I was very disappointed with the way I played," he said afterwards. "It was very poor snooker, but he was even worse. Still, I think I can do the business. I've got a feeling inside me that it'll just come. But I've got to dig deep and find something extra. If I can connect and hit 95 per cent of my game, I'm going to win it."

Whatever his reservations, White delighted the live audience with the swiftness and variety of his game. He established his authority over Roe, the number 13 seed from Derby, with a break of 52 in the second frame and then caught fire in the seventh, putting together a break of 76 and looking on the way to a century until he missed the yellow with 27 points left on the table and the colours well positioned.

There were other mistakes, and he said afterwards that his concentration had been affected by the controversy over the first-round match, after which he was cleared of any involvement in an alleged spread-betting scandal over the result of the tie, which he won 10-2. Francisco, who has proclaimed his innocence, will appear before a World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association inquiry on 8 May to answer questions concerning his role in the affair. "Everyone knows I was not involved," White said yesterday. "Hopefully Francisco was not involved either, and can prove it."

And so, warmly applauded by the audience, he went off for a three-hour practice session. "I've got a different attitude to life now," he had said. This morning he and Roe will reconvene at 10.30 for the first of the two sessions remaining in the 25-frame match, and it will be something of a surprise if White does not find himself with another free evening on his hands, to prepare for whatever the rest of the week may bring.